Sunday, July 23, 2006

The Implicit Promise of a Story's Beginning

In June, a bunch of us at Forward Motion discussed Nancy Kress' helpful writing book Beginnings, Middles & Ends. Kress says that the opening paragraphs of our novels make an implicit promise to our reader. The question is whether the beginning gives the promises that we think it does.

One of the things we did in our discussion was trade off some of our opening paragraphs to a total of around one hundred words. Then we examined each others' openings for the promises we felt we saw in them. I provided the beginning of Quest to be Queen which I haven't talked about on the blog for a long time. I wrote it for Nano '05 and it is still in need of its first round of revisions. In the opening scene of this fantasy spoof, Teagren is listening to her sisters argue with each other and their father as she leaves home on her quest that will take her away for a year and a day, during which time she intends to win the hand of the prince in marriage.

The folks in the discussion all agreed that the implicit promise was that this would be a story about the interplay of this family and how her quest relates to the group as a whole. However, the story actually is about Teagren's quest, and while certain things throughout remind her of her various sisters, they aren't seen again until the closing scene. Is this cheating? Am I promising one kind of story and promising another?

You might wonder why this is even on my radar at the moment. You may notice that in the previous post Quest did not make the top of the list of things to do; it didn't even make the discussion at all. (Though I admit I love the story and want to get back to it...sometime.)

I've just finished reading two of Mercedes Lackey's books that have been published by the Luna imprint of Harlequin. Luna is producing light and romantic fantasies (which describes Quest come to think of it...). The two Tales of the Five Hundred Kingdoms are The Fairy Godmother and One Good Knight.

The Fairy Godmother starts off with Elena watching her stepmother and stepsisters pack up for a journey. When they leave, on the twelfth page of the story, they are not seen again until the epilogue, though they are mentioned from time to time. It takes a further 26 pages before the fairy godmother comes along. If I were applying Kress' advice on implicit promises to this novel, I would certainly not feel I was being promised the story I got.

Ditto with One Good Knight. To be honest, it took awhile for this story to get rolling. On the 82nd page of print the dragon appears. I have to admit that's where I would have started writing this story were it my idea. Certainly much of what happens earlier has bearing on the entire novel...and what happens with the dragon. But still, 82 pages until the first REAL action? While there would have been a lot of information that would have had to be dropped in later, it still seems like the story started too soon. If it wasn't Mercedes Lackey and what I know of the Luna line of books, I'm not sure I would have made it to the dragon.

So when is the right time to start a story? How important is it that the initial hook be one hundred percent accurate to lead the reader into the story? Can a story "promise" to be about Elena's stepmother and stepsisters and turn into something else? Can Quest to be Queen start off with Teagren's family squabble and carry on with her quest, having the reader aware of what she leaves behind and why she feels compelled to go?

Somebody once told me the best place to start a story is just before everything changes. What do you think?

4 comments:

Katie Hart said...

With romance (which most novels have at least as a subplot), I believe the best place to begin is with the scene with the action that will draw the hero and heroine together - for the first time or in new and different ways.

With my novels - in the first scene of Freedom's Decision, Edmund, a Loyalist, makes a decision to investigate the Patriots. The heroine of the story, Edmund's former schoolmate, is Patriot. Earlier in the scene, his family hints that he should begin seeking a bride.

In Evergreen Secrets (as you know), the first scene pushes two acquaintances, Rob and Winter, together.

With the planned opening of my wip, Karel and Tahir "meet" (if pulling a knife on someone can be considered meeting) in the first scene. Everything in Karel's quest had gone according to plan (i.e. boring) up until that point, so it's a logical place to start.

I've heard that whatever plotline you begin with, you need to end with. For example, Edmund makes his decision for the Patriots several chapters before the end of the book. But the romance isn't tied up until the last scene, so what is on the very first page of chapter one? His family teasing him about finding a wife.

Valerie Comer said...

Good points, Katie. And why, in Quest, Teagren's family is in the last scene. It shows how they react to the conclusion of her quest, and what it means to the family dynamics.

And my nano romance begins and ends in a cemetery. LOL.

Kameron said...

An interesting topic, and one I hadn't really considered before. One review I got of my novel criticized me for not delivering on promises, and now I can see what they were referring to.

Valerie Comer said...

Hey Kameron, thanks for stopping by. Nancy Kress' book is one of the decenter writing books out there. I like her revision plan as well.